Wave Sonali Deraniyagala

Virago, pp.224, £12.99, ISBN: 9781844089284

Sonali Deraniyagala’s horrific book Wave, about her experience in and after the 26 December 2004 tsunami that struck the south-east coast of Sri Lanka, is one of the most moving memoirs I have ever read.

All year round, day and night, if you looked down that long two-mile line of sea and sand, you would see, unless it was very rough, continually at regular intervals a wave, not very high but unbroken two miles long, lift itself up very slowly, wearily, poise itself for a moment in sudden complete silence, and then fall with a great thud upon the sand.  That moment of complete silence followed by the great thud, the thunder of the wave upon the shore, became part of the rhythm of my life.  It was the last thing I heard as I fell asleep at night, the first thing I heard when I woke in the morning – the moment of silence, the heavy thud; the moment of silence, the heavy thud – the rhythm of the sea, the rhythm of Hambantota.
Leonard Woolf (Growing)

Anyone who has been to Hambantota, stayed at the Rest House and looked down at the beautiful bay lined with catamarans at the very edge of the town, will remember Woolf’s description of the sea because it was impossible not to experience what he heard before falling asleep.

But it also used to frighten me. It was indeed the rhythm of life on that beautiful bay which has long been known as one of the safest anchorages in the world. The Greek navigators of Alexander the Great knew of the harbour, as did Ptolemy, who marked it on his map of Taprobane under the name Dionysii. Today’s name probably derives from sampan-tota, meaning ‘harbour of the sampans’. Malays, sailing in their sampans westwards across the ocean from southeast Asia, came to Ceylon in search of elephants. Some of them settled, and now, as a result of further Malay immigration, Hambantota has the largest population of Malay Muslims in Sri Lanka. In 2004, they were among the unfortunate people who fell victim to the terrible tsunami which followed the same path across the ocean from Sumatra as their ancestors in their sampans. When the monster wave struck, the bay turned from being a favourite anchorage into a living death trap.

When I was a small boy in 1940s Ceylon I always stayed in the Hambantota Rest House with my family, before heading the few miles up the coast, through Tissamaharama, to the Yala National Park, probably my favourite place in the whole of Sri Lanka. I have been back many times, and have written about it. In fact I was staying in Yala only a few days before the wave struck, researching my book Woolf in Ceylon, which was published the following year.  Woolf was a junior civil servant in Ceylon from 1904–1911 and was Assistant District Commissioner in the Hambantota area, which included Yala, during his last few years.

On the morning of 26 December 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala, her parents, her husband and her two young sons were holidaying at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel. Looking out of her window before 9 o’clock that morning, she thought nothing of the unusual sea activity.

The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all. A white foamy wave had climbed all the way up to the rim of the sand where the beach fell abruptly down to the sea. You never saw water on that stretch of sand.

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It was a friend who alerted her. ‘Oh my God, the sea’s coming in.’ At first it didn’t seem that alarming — only the white curl of a big wave. Then there was more white froth:

The foam turned into waves. Waves leaping over the ridge where the beach ended. This was not normal. The sea never came this far in. Waves not receding or dissolving. Closer now. Brown and grey. Brown or grey. Waves rushing… coming closer to our room.  All these waves now, charging, churning.  Suddenly furious. Suddenly menacing.

They didn’t speak. Deraniyagala grabbed her children and she and her husband fled. They didn’t stop for her parents or shout to warn them. They ran — down the driveway at the front of the hotel. Ahead of them a jeep was moving fast. It stopped. They ran up to it, hurling themselves into the open back. The driver revved his engine and the jeep jerked forward, driving fast.

Suddenly all this water inside the jeep.Where did this water come from? I didn’t see those waves get to us.The water was rising now, filling the jeep. It came up to our chests.The jeep turned over. On my side.

And then pain. That was all she could feel. Something was crushing her chest. She was trapped under the jeep she thought.  Flattened by it. The pain was unrelenting in her chest, but she was moving. Her body was curled up, and she was spinning fast. Water — smoky and grey — and her chest hurting as if it were being pummelled by a huge stone. ‘If this is not a dream I must be dying. It can be nothing else, this terrible pain.’

Deraniyagala kept spinning and bleeding, her clothes ripped from her — almost naked —floating on her back, water battering her face, the salt going up her nose and burning her brain. There was no sign of her family. She was sailing through rapids, the water dragging her on and on. Panic. And then suddenly — a branch hanging over the water — still thrashing her face.

Then I was under it, and I reached out, but the branch was nearly behind me. I threw my arms back a little and grabbed, holding on.

This is a tragic story. Although she is rescued, she soon realises that she is the only one in her family still alive. It could only be described as a hell on earth — sitting on the green concrete bench in the Yala Park Museum with a host of bruised and shocked survivors huddled silently on the floor around her before they are herded in crowded vans to a hospital.

How anyone can have survived the mental anguish in the following years is something one has to read to believe. Deraniyagala’s Wave holds nothing back, revealing the black hole of despair and futility. It is six months before she can pluck up the courage to re-visit the Yala Safari Beach Hotel, with her father-in-law and his sister. The hotel had been flattened. There were no walls standing and the surrounding jungle, just like her life, had been torn apart.

It is now nine years since that tsunami, and it is obvious that Deraniyagala has struggled hard to tell us of this tragedy and of her struggle to live with the memory of her lost family. The book is also an amazing love story. One can only hope that this courageous memoir will somehow give the author the peace and release from the nightmare she has had to endure.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Christopher Ondaatje, destruction, Sri Lanka, tsunami, wave